Anoka-Hennepin School District reviews play-up policy

Champlin Park among schools impacted by district’s decision

By OLIVIA KOESTER

ABC Newspapers

Under Anoka-Hennepin’s middle school acceleration policy, revised in the fall of 2013, 35 requests for middle school students to play on high school teams were granted this past year.

“I think we were a little shocked at first with what seemed to be a large number,” School Board Chairperson Tom Heidemann said at a work session Aug. 11, when the board reviewed the play-up policy with staff, including activities directors from the five high schools.

Champlin Park cross country could be one of the many varsity sports in the Anoka-Hennepin school district that could still receive middle school talent if the school board approves amendments to the middle school acceleration policy on Sept. 22, making it permanent. (Sun Post staff photo by Matthew Davis)
Champlin Park cross country could be one of the many varsity sports in the Anoka-Hennepin school district that could still receive middle school talent if the school board approves amendments to the middle school acceleration policy on Sept. 22, making it permanent. (Sun Post staff photo by Matthew Davis)

Prior to the 2013-2014 school year, seventh- and eighth-grade students were allowed to participate on high school athletic teams only if their participation made a team viable by filling out a roster.

It only took place at the lowest level of the activity,” Associate Superintendent for High Schools Jeff McGonigal said.

The Minnesota State High School League allows seventh- and eighth-grade athletes to compete at the varsity level without restriction, but District 11 wanted to reserve spots on those teams for high school students who worked hard to earn them over the years, Heidemann said when policy revisions were approved last fall.

In some cases, middle school students’ performances have the potential to benefit the larger group, propelling an entire team to a state appearance or conference win, administrators and school board members decided, enacting a pilot program by making changes to policy 510.10 effective for one year only.

The changes allow seventh- and eighth-graders to accelerate if their skill level is exceptional and if their participation does not displace a high school athlete from varsity or junior varsity teams.

Acceleration applications must be unanimously approved by a committee made up of the five activities directors – one from each of the district’s five regular high schools – and two school board members.

Before coming to committee, activities directors thoroughly vet students who have the potential to accelerate, speaking with the students, as well as their coaches and parents, according to Eric Lehtola, activities director at Andover High School.

“Mentally – is the student athlete ready to come up to the high school team?” is one question activities directors like to have answered before a request is brought to the larger committee, Lehtola said.

In 2013-2014, the committee approved 35 requests to play-up and denied seven, working off an objective rubric, Heidemann said.

Across the district in 2013-2014, girls cross-country and track and field welcomed the most middle school athletes to high school teams.

Champlin Park High School had six requests approved for 2013-2014. The Rebels took on two girls cross country runners, a boys swimmer, two girls track athletes and one girls golfer.

Megan Munneke, an eighth-grade girls golfer at the time, finished second among her team’s golfers at the section meet in June for a fourth-place team finish. Munneke also earned all-conference honors with a 20th-place finish in conference meet.

“Our coaches have been great communicating with student athletes and parents about how the policy works and have brought those athletes forward that meet the criteria,” Champlin Park ahtletic director Mathew Mattson said.

This year, the Rebels have four middle school girls swimmers who received accelarations. Mattson sees this policy as good for the school and the district in its proper place.

“We are looking at only approving athletes that are in the top few spots on a varsity team and will help that team eventually make it farther in section and state tournament play,” Mattson said.

Champlin Park’s cross-district and conference rival, Anoka, had the most accelerations among district schools with nine in 2013-2014.

As an eighth-grader, Sydney Paulson earned three of those accelerations. She was permitted to run varsity cross-country, join the varsity Nordic ski team and participate in varsity track and field at AHS.

She helped the cross-country team advance to state, as well as a relay team in track and field.

“I was in favor of the policy for the last few years,” Sydney’s dad, Brandon Paulson, said. “I’m glad it worked out last year.”

He thinks the gates could open even wider for middle school athletes in Anoka-Hennepin.

“I think it should be open competition for athletes, especially in any sport you can kind of judge their talent,” he said. “I think the athletes should be able to play-up.”

Paulson would like to see less power in the hands of the school board and more allocated to activities directors.

“Why micromanage it?” he asked.

School Board Member Scott Wenzel would like to see more board influence – three board members on the committee instead of two.

There were few issues this year, according to McGonigal.

With different daily schedules at high schools and middle schools, there was a concern with students leaving class early for practice. It was resolved with firm direction not to do so.

“We can’t compromise academic performance,” Heidemann said.

The policy needs to be amended for the pilot revisions to become permanent. It will likely go before the board for approval Sept. 22.

Sports Editor Matthew Davis contributed to this report

Olivia Koester is at [email protected]